“I wouldn’t say that there is a distinctive style here,” Laura Reiley , the Tampa Bay Times restaurant critic, tells me in a recent interview.
“I would agree with that,” says Ray Lampe, a longtime barbecue competitor and cookbook author who lives in the area and is popularly known by the nom de ’cue, Dr. BBQ. “Florida is the South. You get barbecue from Georgia and Alabama and all over.”
I called the two of them for an assessment of the barbecue scene in and around Tampa — and for some recommendations. I wanted their opinion on one other question as well: If the presumptive Republican presidential nominee wanted a photo-op at one barbecue restaurant in the area, which would it be?
Starting during the primaries, the multi-millionaire Mitt Romney has been doing his best “common man” routine at a number of barbecues around the country. Just a couple of weeks ago, on Aug. 4, he announced his support for Indiana’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Richard Mourdock, at Stepto’s Bar-B-Q Shack in Evansville, Ind., where he ordered a pulled chicken sandwich.
If Romney shows up at a Tampa restaurant at all, my guess is that it will be a Cuban eatery to curry favor with the state’s influential bloc of voters. I’d place my bet on the Ybor City site of the local chain, the Columbia Restaurant, a bustling Cuban and Spanish establishment that, dating back to 1905, is said to be Florida’s oldest restaurant.
But this is a barbecue column, so I will stick to the smoked stuff.
Reiley says that Tampa, like almost everywhere, has experienced an invasion of barbecue restaurants recently. Four of them, she says, opened in the last year or so on one street.
Some of the explosion is in response to the rough economy. “Since 2008, a lot of people in construction and development are unemployed,” she says. Some of them, accomplished backyard barbecuers, opened storefronts. “What started as a hobby became a business,” she says.
A story she did a few years ago exemplifies the “everywhere-ness” of Tampa barbecue: The article is categorized into sections, such as “Oklahoma-style,” “Memphis-style” and “North Carolina-style,” among others.
As a top overall choice, Reiley and Lampe both recommend Champions in St. Petersburg, which suffered the recent death of its founder, a legendary pitman named Fred Fleming.
Both of them say you’ll have to travel outside Tampa for good ’cue. I chose three of their individual picks and included recommended dishes.
Smokin’ J’s BBQ. There are two locations; Reiley recommends the one in Gulfport. The owners competed in the Dallas area before moving to Florida. Recommended: brisket.
The Ozona Pig, Palm Harbor. Reiley describes the town as “hippie-dippie” (perfect for Republicans, huh?) and says the “whole town is basically perfumed” by the restaurant’s smoke. Recommended: “The barbecue is good — smoky and moist, with a good smoke ring.”
Beachwood BBQ & Burger, St. Pete Beach. The restaurant is situated in the Post Card Inn, which, Reiley explains, is a refurbished Travel Lodge as an homage to the 1950s surf era. Tip: If you want to meet Sarah Palin, you might run into her here — the Alaska delegation, Reiley says, is staying at the Inn.
Non-barbecue tip: Brocato’s Sandwich Shop, in Tampa. A divey locals joint that dates back to 1948. In addition to a giant Cuban, the place makes a great version of an area favorite — the mildly spicy, football-shaped croquette known as deviled crab.
Big John’s Alabama BBQ, Tampa. Opened in 1968, the two-generation Big John’s was established by (who’d’ve guessed?) a transplanted Alabaman. Lampe calls it “old school.” Pitmen hurl hardwoods into pits in the wall. Recommended: sausage, ribs and the thin, vinegary red sauce.
Holy Hog Barbecue, Tampa, two locations. Decorative taxidermy. Run by the same family that owns Pipo’s, a Cuban food institution. Recommended: ribs, sausage, mac and cheese. (Reiley recommends its burnt ends.)
First Choice Southern Bar-B-Que, two locations. Lampe suggests the original, in Brandon. Established in 1992, it’s a non-descript restaurant in a strip mall. Recommended: pork, turkey and a macaroni salad in a scorching red sauce.
Romney photo-op: Without knowing the other’s choice, both picked the same place for a Romney photo: Jimbo’s Pit Bar-B-Q in Tampa. “There’s a whole bunch of working guys having lunch, and it’s been there forever,” Lampe says. “When you say ‘man of the people,’ that would be the place.” He recommends the ribs.